Grocery shopping with Mother was a thrilling excursion. Until after I was three, Mother bought on credit at Darnell’s Store, the only store in our little neighborhood. Housewives danced around out of Old Man Darnell’s reach while Mrs. Darnell scowled from behind the counter. Her mean little Pekingnese ran out nipping at us every time we stepped in the store, seeming to prefer the tender legs of toddlers, while Mrs. Darnell snapped that he didn’t bite, even after he drew blood. Mrs Darnell’s bald spot was set off spectacularly by her frizzy-dyed black hair. Mrs. Darnell and that hateful little dog will always be burned in my mind as a witch and her familiar. Old Man Darnell always had a big brown stogie hanging out of his mouth, which I was convinced was a turd. Any urge to smoke died then and there. I could never ask Mother about the cigar since I couldn’t phrase my question without forbidden words. I would have had to substitute gee-gee for the much-admired doo-doo word my cousins tossed about so freely. Even, at three and a half, knew it wouldn’t do to ask why Old Man Darnell always had a piece of gee gee in his mouth.
Eventually, Mother learned to drive, freeing her from Darnell’s Store. She insisted on driving into Springhill, the nearest town with an A & P and a Piggly Wiggly. She had to agree not to spend more than twelve dollars a week, since “money didn’t grow on trees,” nor were we a rich two-car family. Unless Daddy caught a ride to work, on grocery day, Mother had to take him to work, come back home till the business day started, Attend to her business, then pick him up at the end of his shift. That was eighty miles of driving, not including in-town driving, all this in company of at least two and maybe three small children if Phyllis were not in school. A timid driver, Mother never went above twenty-five miles per hour and often pulled on the shoulder if she saw a car approaching. First we had to drive by Piggly Wiggly where Mother parked to read all the specials posted on on butcher paper in the windows. With that money-saving information firmly imbedded in her mind, off we headed to the A&P where her genius proved itself.
Before entering, Mother powdered her nose, put on fresh lipstick, combed her hair, then turned her attention to us. In the days before she “had so many children, she didn’t know what to do,” we were all dressed up. Mother was sure to remark later who she saw who “went to town without lipstick.” We’d be eating whatever was ten-cans-for-a-dollar, reduced for quick sale, or was on special that week. We always got a box of Animal Crackers to munch in the cart as Mother inspected every can, potato, and chicken for the best buy. When we’d start badgering her for cookies, candy, and cereal with prizes, she’d say, “Don’t start! Just don’t start!” While Mother was critiquing the chickens, I remember poking my finger through the cellophane into the hambones. I don’t think she ever caught me. No Kellogg’s Cornflakes for us. We got Sunnyfield, the store brand. Long after the Animal Crackers were gone, Mother finally let the bag boy load her groceries in the trunk. He needn’t expect a tip. If she had another nickel, it was going for the specials at Piggly Wiggly.
Not long before I started school, Mother unwittingly discovered a way to ensure good behavior the whole time we were in town. She’d say, “remind me to take you by the Health Unit to get a polio shot.” I was perfect till we passed the outskirts of town.
Onward to Piggly Wiggly, where she’d grab up their specials. Eventually, we’d head home with bags and bags of groceries: twenty-five pounds of flour, five pounds of dried pinto beans, a three pound can of shortening, twenty- five pounds of potatoes, five pounds of meal, three pounds of coffee, powdered milk, since it was cheaper. It seemed like it took a dozen trips to drag all those paper bags in. Invariably, a couple would break and have us chasing canned vegetables. She usually bought chicken, since that was the cheapest meat, but sometimes there’d be hamburger, roast or fish.
When I go to the grocery store with Mother now, I don’t get Animal Crackers, though I could if I wanted to. The other day were were headed into the grocery store when Mother laughed and said “Linda, will you buy me……?”
She does this as a joke every time we go in a store, now. As always, I answer back, just like she always did when I was a kid, “don’t start! Just don’t you start!” This particular day, an infuriated elderly gentleman heard the exchange, and inferred I was being unkind. I could have lost an eye before we made our explanations. It’s good to pay attention to what going on around you before opening your mouth.